By Gregg Bing
(Continued from Mar-Apr 2014 issue)
We have examined two areas of proof for the resurrection of Jesus Christ: the fact that His tomb was empty and the testimony of eyewitnesses who saw Him after He rose from the dead. In this issue, we examine one last piece of evidence: the extraordinary transformations that took place in the lives of those who saw the risen Lord, Jesus Christ.
The Twelve Apostles.
James, the son of Zebedee, was killed with the sword by Herod Agrippa, a fact recorded in the book of Acts (Acts 12:1-2). According to secular historians, the rest of Jesus’ twelve apostles with one exception, were martyred as well. Philip, one of Jesus’ first disciples, the one who brought Nathanael to Jesus, was crucified at Heliopolis in Phrygia. Matthew, the tax collector, was slain with a halberd (a spear with an ax head) in Ethiopia. James the Less, the son of Alphaeus, was beaten and stoned by Jews at Jerusalem. Matthias, who replaced Judas Iscariot, was stoned and beheaded at Jerusalem. Andrew, who brought his brother Peter to Jesus, was crucified at Patrae in Achaia (southern Greece). Simon Peter, the leader of the Twelve, was crucified upside down in Rome; his death was foretold by Jesus (John 21:18-19). Judas, also known as Thaddeus, was crucified at Edessa in Turkey. Nathanael, also known as Bartholomew, was beaten and crucified by idolaters in India. Thomas, called Didymus, was thrust through with a spear in India. Simon the Zealot was crucified in Britain. The only one of Jesus’ twelve apostles who was not martyred was John, the son of Zebedee, who was exiled to the isle of Patmos to receive the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
Twelve men, all willing to give their lives for one reason: their unwavering testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
What were these men like before Jesus’ resurrection? They were faithful followers of Jesus, part of that little flock who believed He was their promised Messiah and the Son of God. Nevertheless, when Jesus told them about His coming death and resurrection, “they understood none of these things” (Luke 18:34), and as the time of His death drew near, their faith and courage faltered.
The night before He was crucified, while celebrating the Passover with His twelve apostles, Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night.” He told Peter, “This night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” Peter vowed, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” and the rest of the disciples said the same (Matt. 26:31-35), but that very night, Jesus’ words would be proven true.
When the mob, led by Judas Iscariot, came to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples initially put up a show of courage; Peter even drew a sword and cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s servants. But after Jesus healed the man’s ear and submitted to being arrested, all of the apostles “forsook Him and fled” (Matt. 26:56).
As the soldiers led Jesus away, Peter and John followed at a distance to see what would happen. John, who “was known to the high priest,” gained them access into the courtyard (John 18:15-16). That night, as Jesus was interrogated by Annas and Caiphas, Peter stood outside with the servants and officers of the high priest warming himself by a fire of coals. When some of the servants recognized Peter and asked if he was one of Jesus’ disciples, Peter denied it. After his third denial, a rooster crowed. Peter, remembering Jesus’ words, went out and wept bitterly.
Jesus was crucified the next day. Only one of the Twelve was present to witness His sufferings and death: John, the beloved disciple to whom Jesus entrusted the care of His mother. The rest of the apostles were in hiding “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19), mourning and weeping the loss of their Messiah (Mark 16:10).
Three days later, the women returned from Jesus’ empty tomb and told the eleven apostles that He was risen, but “their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).
Later that same evening Jesus suddenly appeared in the midst of the apostles. They “were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit” (Luke 24:37-38). Even after Jesus showed them the nail prints in His hands and His feet, “they still did not believe for joy;” it all seemed too good to be true (Luke 24:41).
Fifty days later, on the day of Pentecost, we find this same group of men, but now they have a different heart and attitude. Peter, speaking for the Twelve, stood and publicly proclaimed to the Jews in Jerusalem that Jesus of Nazareth was their promised Messiah (Acts 2:22). He charged the Jews and their religious rulers of committing a wicked, lawless deed in delivering Jesus to the Romans to be crucified (Acts 2:23). Peter solemnly testified that God had raised Jesus from the dead and exalted Him to the right hand of His Father, proving that He was both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:32-36).
As a result of Peter’s bold testimony, three thousand people gladly received the word and were added to the company of believers (Acts 2:41).
Days later, as Peter and John went up to the temple to pray, they healed a lame man. When the people were amazed at this miracle, Peter declared that the man was made whole by the power of Jesus Christ, whom the Jews crucified, but whom God raised from the dead. The priests and Sadducees had them arrested, “being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:1-3).
The next day, members of the high priest’s family questioned Peter and John about the healing of the lame man. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said, “Let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole” (Acts 4:10). He said, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
These religious leaders realized they could not deny the miracle that had been performed, but they needed to keep it from spreading among the people. So, before releasing Peter and John, they commanded them “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). Peter and John answered, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
God continued to work “many signs and wonders among the people” through the hands of the twelve apostles, and “believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women,” even from cities surrounding Jerusalem (Acts 5:12-16). The high priest and the Sadducees “were filled with indignation and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison” (Acts 5:17-18).
When the apostles were later brought before the Sanhedrin, the high priest asked them, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!” (Acts 5:27-28). Peter and the other apostles answered, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
The members of the Sanhedrin “were furious and plotted to kill them,” but Gamaliel, a respected Jewish rabbi, interceded and persuaded them not to kill the apostles (Acts 5:33-39). Instead, they beat them and “commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go” (Acts 5:40).
How did the apostles react to this persecution? “They departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41-42).
What a change in the lives of these men! Less than two months earlier, the apostles had forsaken Jesus and fled for their lives, had gone into hiding for fear of the Jews, and had refused to believe when the women reported Jesus was alive. Now, they are unmoved by the threats of these same Jewish leaders. In defiance of their command, the apostles have “filled Jerusalem” with their teaching about Jesus Christ. After being imprisoned, threatened, and beaten, they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to share in the sufferings of their precious Savior. They continued teaching and preaching that Jesus the Christ was alive, even in the temple, where the Jewish rulers were sure to hear about it.
What caused such an extraordinary transformation in the lives of Jesus’ twelve apostles? The Apostle Paul, in listing eyewitnesses of the Lord Jesus, said: “He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5). They had seen Jesus with their own eyes; they had seen the nail prints in his hands and feet. They had touched Jesus, had watched as He ate in their presence, had listened as He taught them over a forty day period from His resurrection to His ascension (Luke 24:36-50). The apostles suffered and died for something they knew to be true—that Jesus Christ rose from the dead! The change in these twelve men is powerful evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
James, the Lord’s Brother
During Jesus’ public ministry, He traveled and taught in the cities of the Jews. On one occasion, while Jesus was speaking to the multitudes, His mother, Mary, along with His brothers, stood outside seeking to speak with Him. When Jesus was told they were there, He answered, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” He then stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:46-50). It is evident that Jesus’ earthly family did not understand who He truly was. His real family, His spiritual family, were those who followed Him and listened with open ears to His teaching.
At one point in His ministry, Jesus remained in Galilee; “for He did not want to walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill Him” (John 7:1). As the Feast of Tabernacles drew near, His brothers (actually half-brothers) challenged Him to depart from Galilee and “go into Judea, that Your disciples also may see the works that You are doing” (John 7:2-3). They argued that “no one does anything in secret while he himself seeks to be known openly. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world” (John 7:4). Why would they question their own brother and deal with Him so harshly? Because, “even His brothers did not believe in Him” (John 7:5), and that remained the case throughout Jesus’ three-year earthly ministry.
After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, His disciples, about 120 in number, were gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem, waiting for the promise of the Father—the coming of the Holy Spirit, which would take place on the day of Pentecost. Jesus’ eleven apostles were present, as were the women who supported Him throughout His ministry, but His mother, Mary, was also His disciple now, as well as His brothers—the same brothers who earlier did not believe in Him (Acts 1:12-15).
One of Jesus’ brothers was James (Matt. 13:55), who is often referred to as James the Just. As the history of the book of Acts unfolds, James becomes the leader of the church at Jerusalem, a fact noted in two separate instances, both related to the Apostle Paul’s ministry.
After Paul completed his first journey with Barnabas, some men from Judea came to Antioch and argued that the Gentiles had to be circumcised and keep the law. The Lord instructed Paul to go up to Jerusalem and settle this issue (Gal. 2:1-10; Acts 15:1-6).
When he arrived, Paul met privately (Gal. 2:2) with three men who were considered pillars (Gal. 2:9) of the church: James, Cephas, and John. James, the brother of John, was already dead by this time, having been killed by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:1-2). The James that is mentioned here is the Lord’s brother.
The apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church then gathered to consider what was required of Gentile believers, a meeting commonly referred to as the Jerusalem Council. Peter was there to testify at the council (Acts 15:7-11), but, when it came time for a judgment to be made, James took the lead and spoke for the church (Acts 15:21); James decided what should be done (Acts 15:19).
When Paul returned to Jerusalem years later, James was still the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 21:17-18). The believing Jews in Jerusalem had heard that Paul was teaching Jews everywhere to forsake the law of Moses; James directed Paul to take a Jewish vow to prove that what these Jews had heard was not true. (Acts 21:20-25).
In addition to his role as leader of the Jerusalem church, James and his brother Jude (Judas) were also used of God to write part of the New Testament Scriptures. In the opening words of their letters, instead of identifying themselves as brothers of Jesus, they called themselves “bondservants of Jesus Christ” (James 1:1; Jude 1:1).
James remained the leader of the Jerusalem church throughout his life and through his unwavering testimony, led many Jews to believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Secular historians, such as Josephus and Eusebius, record that the Jewish high priest and the Sanhedrin accused James of breaking the law and sentenced him to die. Many believe he was stoned to death outside the temple in Jerusalem.
What brought about such a drastic change in the life of Jesus’ brother, James? Why was he willing to die for a Man he initially did not even believe in? James, too, is included in Paul’s list of those who saw Jesus Christ after His resurrection: “After that He was seen by James” (1 Cor. 15:7). The change in James’ life provides additional proof that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
Saul of Tarsus
The most stunning transformation was in the life of Saul of Tarsus. While the eleven apostles forsook Jesus out of fear for their lives and were slow to believe, even after He rose from the dead, they did believe He was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (John 6:69). Saul did not believe these things, therefore, he blasphemed (spoke against) Jesus and persecuted all who followed Him (Acts 26:9).
Saul was raised to have this attitude toward Jesus. His father was a Pharisee, the religious party who considered themselves righteous because they, supposedly, kept the Law and the traditions of the fathers. (Acts 23:6). These men were offended at Jesus’ teaching and secretly envious of His popularity among the people.
From his youth, Saul was trained in Jerusalem to be a Pharisee. Sitting at the feet of the famous rabbi, Gamaliel, he was taught “according to the strictest sect of the Jews’ religion” (Acts 26:5). Saul “advanced in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries in his own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of his fathers” (Gal. 1:14).
The first mention of Saul in the Scriptures is Acts 7:58, where those who were witnesses to the stoning of Stephen “laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul,” who was “consenting to (pleased with) his death” (Acts 8:1). Saul was convinced that “he must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9-10). Since Stephen was a disciple of Jesus, Saul felt that killing him was a service to God (John 16:2).
After the stoning of Stephen “a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem;” a persecution led by Saul of Tarsus. He “made havoc of the church,” treating the disciples of Jesus with contempt. He entered their houses and dragged both men and women off to prison (Acts 8:3). When many of these saints were put to death, Saul cast his vote against them (Acts 26:10). He “punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme (the name of Jesus).” Saul was so “exceedingly enraged against them, he persecuted them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:11). While he did these things out of a zeal for God (Acts 22:3), Saul would later acknowledge that he acted “ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13).
Thirteen years after the stoning of Stephen, the life of Saul of Tarsus had been completely turned around. Instead of blaspheming the name of Jesus Christ, Saul (who was also called Paul) was sent by the Holy Spirit, along with Barnabas, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to teach the Word of God. They traveled through the island of Cyprus and to many cities in Asia Minor, but, as apostles of Jesus Christ, they faced opposition everywhere they went from both unbelieving Jews and Gentiles.
At Antioch in Pisidia, Paul preached the Word in the Jewish synagogue. When he preached the same message a week later to the Gentiles, the unbelieving Jews stirred up the city leaders, raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from the region (Acts 13:50).
Paul and Barnabas continued on to Iconium where, as Paul preached the Word, a great multitude of both Jews and Gentiles believed. Once again, the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and “poisoned their minds against the brethren” (Acts 14:2). God enabled Paul and Barnabas to stay a long time in Iconium, “speaking boldly in the Lord,” but the city remained divided (Acts 14:4). Eventually, “a violent attempt was made by both the Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to abuse and stone” Paul and Barnabas, so they fled to Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14:5-6).
In Lystra, Paul and Barnabas, after healing a lame man, were mistaken for gods; the people were ready to worship them. However, unbelieving Jews from Antioch and Iconium came to Lystra and persuaded the multitudes, who “stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead” (Acts 14:19). What did Paul do in the face of such violent opposition? He rose up, went back into the city, and stayed the night (Acts 14:20).
The next day, Paul and Barnabas departed to Derbe where they preached the gospel of Christ and made many disciples. Paul then did something amazing; he returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch: to Lystra, where he was stoned and left for dead; to Iconium, where a violent attempt was made to abuse and stone him; and to Antioch, where he was persecuted and expelled from the region.
Why would Paul and Barnabas go back, knowing they might face more persecution? They returned to “strengthen the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith” (Acts 14:22), knowing the hostility and persecution these new disciples would face from the unbelieving Jews. They also “appointed elders in every church” to provide spiritual leadership for the new believers in these cities (Acts 14:23).
When Paul and Barnabas finally returned to their home base at Antioch in Syria, they reported “all that God had done with them” (Acts 14:27). What humble servants of the Lord, giving God the glory for what was done through their ministry.
The Apostle Paul was vastly different from the man he was before, Saul of Tarsus; not only his boldness in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ and teaching the Word of God, but his willingness to endure severe sufferings (2 Cor. 11:23-28).
The dramatic change in Saul of Tarsus epitomizes what it means to be “a new creation in Christ” in which “old things are passed away” and “all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Paul described his new mindset in his letter to the Philippians: “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet, indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:7-8). The man that once persecuted Jesus Christ now said: “To me, to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21).
Paul was not only willing to suffer for Christ, he was ready to die. When Paul “finished the course” the Lord had given him, he was imprisoned in Rome and later executed by Nero (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
What caused such a complete change in the life of Saul of Tarsus? We find the answer in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time” (1 Cor. 15:8). The moment Saul of Tarsus came face to face with the risen and ascended Lord, Jesus Christ, on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9), his life was turned around. The transformation from Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul serves as one of the greatest proofs that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.
The extraordinary transformations in the lives of those who saw Jesus after He was raised from the dead are powerful proof that we serve a risen Savior! Since the days of these apostles, the lives of men and women have continued to be changed. People are not transformed as these eyewitnesses were; we don’t have the opportunity to see Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, when people hear the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, they, too, become new creations in Christ. When Jesus appeared to Thomas, who initially doubted that Jesus was alive, He told him: “Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
Have you believed? Have you experienced the transforming power of the risen Savior in your life? If not, you can do so now by simple faith in Him; by believing that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross of Calvary for your sins and, after three days in the grave, rose again unto eternal life. When you trust Christ as your Savior, God will give you a new life; a life filled with love, joy, peace and hope for the future. What we saw happen to these 1st century believers, will be true of you as well—your life will never be the same.